Calculating the cost of letting machines make decisions for us
Isn't it great to live in an age when machines can do anything? Cars drive themselves, jetliners land themselves, and smartphones do just about everything but tuck us into bed.
Recognition software can read our moods and even catch us telling lies. (That's a good thing, right?) Programs can analyze our handwriting and predict our likes, dislikes, and likely actions by tracking our digital footprints. Soon, Amazon may be filling orders for us that we haven't even placed yet.
In the workplace, software programs may start deciding who gets hired or promoted based on models constructed from data gathered about the highest performing employees. This may include variables based on medical history, psychological markers, and virtual clues to everything about us including age, gender, political leanings, and sexual preference.
In a recent Ted Talk, Zeynep Tufekci acknowledges that these programs may make decisions more objectively than humans do. But she cautions that machines trained to infer and predict are only as good as their programming, and will of necessity reflect the biases of their programmers -- which could mean compounding, not eliminating, bias.
What's more, the algorithms that produce this kind of "machine learning" don't allow for human insight and intuition. It's all statistical analysis, which turns probabilities into absolutes with no assessment by human reasoning and without allowing room for appeal to a higher authority.
'GOOD AFTERNOON, DAVE'
The more troubling issue is our willingness to abdicate the responsibility implicit in free choice. In a culture that has long conflated judgment with judgmentalism, it's hardly surprising to find how eager people are to reduce every decision to a binary option and thereby eliminate all shades of gray from the mix. And if that's not enough, we can simply block any information that doesn't conform to our way of thinking.
Just last week, former Facebook "news curators" revealed that they had been instructed by superiors to manipulate the "trending news" module to suppress conservative-leaning stories. This would be just as disturbing if they were attempting to suppress liberal stories, since media bias is both irresponsible and immoral no matter which way it tilts.
But aside from that, the phenomenon of trending is itself discomforting. Why is a story newsworthy just because it attracts attention? Do more clicks make the Brangelina rupture more important than Hillary Clinton's emails?
Even if we don't click on trending stories, we still don't get the whole picture. With or without our consent, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook are all filtering our "content" to align with what each algorithm determines we want to read. And as much as I'm grateful not to have Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber populating the headlines on my newsfeed, I'm not necessarily better off if I'm shielded from stories that might make me uncomfortable because they challenge my preconceptions and stereotypes, especially those based on ignorance and inaccuracy.
Whether we know about them or not, these filters exacerbate the social blight of groupthink, legitimizing narrow-mindedness by deleting rational opposing viewpoints from our consciousness. Nearly a century ago, Will Rogers parodied the insularity of President Calvin Coolidge: "Everyone I come in contact with is doing well; they have to be doing well or they don't come in contact with me." Now modern technology enables all of us to hide from the complex realities of our world, simplifying every issue into black and white, good versus evil, us against them.
WHEN WE KNOW WHO WE ARE
If we are confident and secure in our own opinions, why do we need to hide from those who disagree with us? If we are certain that truth is on our side, why do we have to defame those across the aisle? If we really want to affect positive change, why don't we make the effort to sit down with ideological opponents and engage them in thoughtful and respectful discourse?
Could it be that we're more concerned with looking right than with being right, more worried about having to change our world view than bridging the philosophical divide, more committed to the preservation of our own egos than to the integrity of truth?
And even if we are ready to concede all that, how are we supposed to make peace with adversaries who are themselves ideologic, egocentric, and intractable?
In the movie Deja Vu, Denzel Washington travels back in time to stop a terrorist attack and save Paula Patton. Trying to explain why she should believe his warnings, he says to her, "What would you do if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they'd never believe you?"
She answers back: "I'd try."
The best way to try is to live up to the values that we demand from others. If we act with sincerity, integrity, and civility, our adversaries will have no choice but to respect us, no matter how much they may disagree with us. But it only works if we have thoroughly considered our own points-of-view, and if we are willing to accept the possibility that, on occasion, we might be wrong.
As King Solomon says: When a man's ways please the Divine, he shall make even his enemies be at peace with him.
To respond to dogma with reason, to answer epithets with respect, to turn aside angry voices with soft words --- this is the formula for tearing down walls of acrimony, bridging chasms of misunderstanding, and bringing peace to a tortured society.